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CNN: Ramadan road trip: Moving melting pot finds peace, love and animosity

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(CNN) — As the blue Chevy Cobalt crept toward the edge of the property in Chula, Georgia, a palpable nervousness wafted through the cramped car.

Three men, straight out of central casting from “Deliverance,” craned their necks toward our vehicle. A 30-by-50-foot Confederate flag waved 120 feet in the air. Nothing says “Welcome to the South” quite like the old battle flag.

We were quite the sight for this rural stop along Interstate 75: two olive-skinned Americans on a mission; an African-American photographer; and me, a white boy from the Bible Belt.

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Even I, a lifelong Southerner, wondered about the wisdom of stopping here. Should we pull up to the Confederate souvenir shop or keep on going?

Aman Ali, a 25-year-old Muslim born in Columbus, Ohio, inched the car onto the gravel lot.

It wouldn’t be the only time we might confront stereotypes on this most unusual road trip, what we dubbed the Rolling Embodiment of America’s Melting Pot.

It wouldn’t be the only time we might confront stereotypes on this most unusual road trip, what we dubbed the Rolling Embodiment of America’s Melting Pot.

Aman and his friend, Bassam Tariq, a 23-year-old Muslim of Pakistani descent, are visiting 30 mosques in 30 days in 30 states for the holy month of Ramadan, a time for spiritual purification. It’s a cross-country journey that will cover 12,000 miles.
By blogging and interviewing Muslims in each community, as well as fielding constant media calls, they hope to show that Muslims are more mainstream than many portrayals in the media. The two also want to learn more about the nation’s heartland, the flyover country that some people see only from airplanes.
With the nation focused on the proposed Islamic community center and mosque near ground zero in New York City, I wondered what could be learned by traveling with Aman and Bassam into mosques far from the media spotlight.
Reaction to the New York mosque, just blocks from where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once stood, has stirred emotion all over the country, both for and against it. And Muslims have faced opposition to mosques beyond New York, from Tennessee to Wisconsin to California.
So when Aman and Bassam swung through Atlanta, Georgia, and stopped for a television interview at CNN headquarters, photographer Robert Johnson and I joined them for the next leg of their journey.
Watch the two explain their road trip mission
What would be the takeaway for two Christians like Robert and me? How would we be received by Muslims as they celebrated Ramadan? And what would Aman and Bassam learn in their adventure across a nation that seems clearly conflicted about Islam in America?
Along the way, we were welcomed by a largely African-American Muslim congregation in Atlanta — home to former NBA star Shareef Abdur-Rahim and one of the nation’s most decorated African-American swimmers, Sabir Muhammad. A diverse group of Muslims in Jacksonville, Florida, greeted us just months after a firebomb attack on their mosque.
Yet, not everything was peace, love and Kumbaya.
Animosity didn’t come from the Confederate-flag-waving Southerner along I-75, as we all feared. But it would come later — directed not just at the non-Muslims, but at all four of us, as outsiders.
And just after we parted ways, as the two traveled alone into Mississippi, an officer of the law would test their faith — not in Islam, but in the America they love.

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Muslim American born in Brooklyn, NY with Guyanese parents currently living in Virginia working full-time as a web developer.

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